“I can only hope that in this election African American voters cast their ballots on the basis of what each candidate proposes—and not on the basis of what they think their racial essence ought to be. That is what real liberation is all about.”
as former President Barack Obama elected because he was black? It’s hard to say. Some high-profile black voters had no qualms saying that, yes, they voted for him solely on the basis of his skin color. White voters may not have made then-candidate Obama’s racial identity as salient; however, in the analysis of renowned scholar Shelby Steele, white guilt was certainly a factor in his electoral triumph. And, once elected, President Obama pursued policies (drone warfare, massive deportations, mass surveillance) that, had he been a white politician, many media outlets would likely have been much more critical of. Ultimately, one does have to wonder if President Obama was offered a free pass, given that his would-be critics may not have wanted to be known for opposing the first African American president in American history.
Be that as it may, we ought to be fair to President Obama: He did not play the race card. He never said “Vote for me because I am black.” But, surely, others did the dirty work for him—none more so than his running mate, Joe Biden. In 2012, Vice President Biden told a mostly black audience that Republicans would “put y’all back in chains.” This might not be precisely the same as saying “Vote for Obama because he is black,” but it is quite close.
Now, as a presidential candidate in his own right, the former Vice President is back at it again. In a conversation with Charlemagne Tha God this morning, former Vice President Biden went on to say, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, you ain’t black.” So, there it is: If you are black, the only way to preserve your race is by voting for him.
To suggest that human races exist is not racist per se, but, to suggest that racial differences explain behavioral differences is racist at its core.
This is actually much more troubling than simply playing the race card. It is rampant racial essentialism. Let me explain why: The jury is still out on whether or not human races truly exist in a biological sense. But, even if they do, racial differences are about physical traits (skin color, hair texture, perhaps vulnerability to particular diseases)—not behaviors. To suggest that human races exist is not racist per se, but, to suggest that racial differences explain behavioral differences is racist at its core.
And yet, this is exactly what the former Vice President is proposing. His comment is typical of racial essentialism. This refers to the idea that human beings are embedded in particular racial essences that dictate how they ought to behave. Essentialism was the foundation of much of the racist thought that existed in the 19th century. Defenders of so-called “racial science” believed that Africans ought to be slaves because their racial essence made it natural that they should serve other races. Somehow, their skin color and hair texture made them naturally servile. Freed Africans, thus, were not living according to their essence.
Former Vice President Biden is suggesting that the biological circumstance of being black is an essence that also includes political preference. And, thus, the only way to behave in correspondence with those biological traits is by voting for him. The implication is that biological traits determine psychological traits. This view is, in fact, very close to those of the line of scholars (going back to Arthur Jensen’s seminal article) who assert that the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of black people cannot be increased too much because they simply do not have the genes for it.
It might be tempting to argue that the former Vice President is saying this sort of thing because, let’s face it, he seems to be in the throes of cognitive decline. However, it actually goes much deeper than this. Racial essentialism has a long history, and it is alive and kicking in the current political scene.
19th century racists, who were eager to rationalize slavery, relied heavily on racial essentialism. But, strangely, some antiracists have done the same. For example, as a way to vindicate Africans vis-à-vis the degradation of colonialism, the Negritude movement of the 1960’s defended the idea that, on account of their biological traits, Africans were more poetic, intuitive, and rhythmic, and this was a nice complement to whites’ more analytical and rational behavior.
Influential philosopher Frantz Fanon reacted against this notion. Yet, he was not entirely free of the essentialism that he denounced. His famous 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks is a diatribe against blacks who assimilate to Western cultural mores (including desiring white sexual partners). He accuses them of wearing “white masks”—in other words, of not being authentically black. The implication of Fanon’s argument is that, if one’s skin is dark, somehow he is obligated to behave in a particular manner. Anything short of that is deviating from one’s racial essence.
The United States has taken a very dangerous route to fight racism. We may call it “racial homeopathy.”
This mentality continues to persist among many antiracists. Black conservatives are routinely called “Oreos” by social justice warriors: They are black on the outside but white on the inside, their detractors claim. Again, this is crude essentialism. Somehow, if one does not share every single tenet of progressive ideology, he is not living up to the standard of his racial essence. This tendency is actually much more worrying than it seems. If one is a young black person achieving academically, his peers will accuse him of “acting white” (and, no, this is not a myth). And so, because one does not wish to betray his race—and he desires to live up to his racial essence—he deliberately messes up exams.
The United States has taken a very dangerous route to fight racism. We may call it “racial homeopathy.” In homeopathy, the main principle is similia similibus curentur, like cures like. Needless to say, this is sheer quackery, but homeopathy remains popular. Ever more, antiracists apply the same principle. They think that they can cure racism with more racism. That is why, in the name of antiracism, they defend segregated dorms, graduations, and so on. That is why they think the phrase “I don’t see color” is a microaggression. It is why they are fascinated with racial identities and shun any universalist discourse. And, most worryingly, that is why they are now rampant racial essentialists. I can only hope that in this election African American voters cast their ballots on the basis of what each candidate proposes—and not on the basis of what they think their racial essence ought to be. That is what real liberation is all about.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His twitter is @gandrade80